Today's Problems Tomorrow

Television's growing fleet of science-fiction dramas paint a brighter - or darker - future

IN the world of science fiction, all things are possible. The boundaries of what it means to be human may be pressed very far, and questions seldom raised in other dramas may be asked. Sci-fi may take place in the future, but its appeal lies largely in what it says about our own time, how it reflects contemporary problems as well as our hopes and fears about an ever-elusive morrow.

Over the years, TV has flirted with science fiction again and again. But today, sci-fi is booming on the small screen. Several sci-fi shows have docked (or will dock soon) on local stations, shows designed to propel us to a remote and glamorous future. Other shows, such as "Quantum Leap," "Time Trax," and the upcoming miniseries, "Wild Palms," tap the near future for technological marvels and their effect on our world.

Of the deep-space dramas, the original "Star Trek" still boldly goes "where no man has gone before" on reruns. Rumor has it that "Star Trek's" spinoff, "Star Trek: The Next Generation" (syndicated; check local listings for station and time) may wind up a successful, seven-year run next season (several actors' contracts are still under negotiation). If so, another spinoff, "Star Trek: Deep Space Nine" (also syndicated), will boldly go where "no one has gone before."

"Babylon 5" (Fox), like "Deep Space Nine," is set in a frontier-outpost space station. But "Babylon 5" (the pilot aired last week, a series may be in the works) has been designed to blast off on a series of intertwining heroes' journeys leading to a particular conclusion five years hence, should it last so long.

In deep-space sci-fi, technology is often a friend. It is taken largely for granted as part of the character of the future against which the all-too-human dramas are played out.

The stories often reflect contemporary morality, working out concerns about racial tensions, gender inequities, and cultural diversity in a more advanced (fantasy) era when, presumably, humankind will be wiser and more just. These humans in space are comforting to people facing today's enormous economic and social ills, a troubled environment, and conflicting values. `Next Generation's blend

"Star Trek: The Next Generation" is the Wild West and the high seas all at once: foreign ports and pirates, virtuous heroes and distressed pilgrims in need of rescue, esoteric religions and fantastic technology. Adventure here is meaningful, and all the crew enjoy a sense of purpose.

On the Enterprise, black and white, male and female, human and humanoid live and work together in peace - each and all ready to fly to one another's rescue. When occasional annoyances - the chafe of personalities or individual psychological crises - arise, a wise nonhuman is more than likely to guide the troubled person or persons into the right path. The show's appeal lies in our longing for community - community utterly responsive and supportive of all its members. The Enterprise is Utopia.

Except that, of course, it's all a bit too neat. Religious beliefs of other planets rarely conflict, and are tolerated as merely cultural phenomena. Sexual expression has no consequences: It usually takes place on some weirdly hedonistic planet or some other fantasy land. The Enterprise crew/family takes the place of the less tidy earthly arrangements, where you don't get to pick your relatives. Most of the crew is unmarried, each living in his or her own separate quarters. Interpersonal relationships, w ith the usual human messiness, rarely crop up. When they do, they can be solved by a quick application of reason or by getting away from the annoying other.

Real intimacy - communion between husband and wife, for example - seems irrelevant here. The fantasy that secular humanism, bolstered by technology, will eventually solve all the problems of the universe insidiously prevails. Misfits of `Deep Space'

Still, "The Next Generation" has appeal. And the ascendant qualities of its characters - courage, fortitude, intelligence, compassion, tolerance - are inherently attractive. That's why "Star Trek: Deep Space Nine" feels so odd. Just as well-written and acted as "The Next Generation," "Deep Space Nine" totally lacks the communal spirit of its predecessor, though its characters are more believable.

Where "The Next Generation" projects a Utopian community into space, "Deep Space Nine" proposes a society of misfits, rebels, outsiders, hooligans, and cynics. There are a few exceptions, but most of the characters carry chips on their shoulders. Anger and egotism are as likely to motivate a character here as honor and courage might in "The Next Generation." Sex is just as meaningless, but religion (so far) is more mystical. While Commander Sisko (played with brooding dignity by Avery Brooks) is more com plex and more touching than Captain Picard (elegantly captured by Patrick Stewart), he's just another military leader caught up in the job. Dumping the fantastical technology and otherworldly creatures, "Deep Space Nine" could take place in any political hot spot in the world.

While the show reflects enlightened, late-20th-century American attitudes toward race, gender, culture, the environment, and the rest, it also reflects the unenlightened state of our society - all the rancor, crime, bitterness, self-serving business practices, racial distrust, and more. Like "The Next Generation," most of the characters are alone, but unlike the family atmosphere on the Starship Enterprise, the inhabitants of the Deep Space Nine space station are isolated and insulated from each other.

And yet, it is still the open-endedness of space - the anything-can-happen possibilities - that intrigue the viewer. The fabulous special effects contribute to the meaning of the genre because they always imply new possibilities, either as advanced technological solutions to physical limitations or as the promise of an infinite variety of life in the universe.

The space station is a symbol of the frontier, of the movement ever outward toward greater understanding. Like its precursor, the Western frontier town, the space station is also a symbol of hope - for change, justice, and reconciliation among peoples. `Babylon 5' frontier

"Babylon 5" is also set in a frontier space station. It may or may not leave the ground, figuratively, but though the acting is uneven (all the nonhuman characters are terrific), and the writing awkward at times, the show boasts a variety of interesting aliens and a greater understanding of the problems of cultural diversity facing us all than either "The Next Generation" or "Deep Space Nine."

As does any frontier town, both "Babylon" and "Deep Space Nine" have saloons (complete with gambling and sleazy atmosphere) as a central metaphor for the barbarity of the wilderness. There are creatures too terrible to look at who represent great hope for peace, and others who have acquired great wisdom.

The show's appeal, should the acting problems be solved, may lie in its resemblance to the frontier town and its epic struggle against the forces of chaos.

The techno-wonders of "Babylon 5" are excellent - sometimes amusing (a spaceship in the form of a tick that attaches itself to the station and sucks energy from it), and sometimes beautiful (hydroponic gardens). The computer animation outstrips the special effects of both this show and "The Next Generation." Near-future sci-fi

Deep-space sci-fi tends to be reassuring by its very nature. Near-future sci-fi can also project an optimistic view of imminent technology. The ever-ingenious, often ethically astute "Quantum Leap" (Tuesdays on NBC) presents tales of a good guy who jumps from one person's life to another in order to change little pieces of history. The new "Time Trax" (Sundays on Fox), on the other hand, features a cop from a dismal future (the late 22nd century) projected back into our own time to capture criminals from

his time and send them back. "Time Trax" started badly - too much melodrama, not enough techno-cool.

The near-future "Wild Palms" (ABC) is a ground-breaking, Oliver

Stone-produced miniseries this spring. This vision warns against a new dark age, a horrific techno-future in which a sadistic genius seeks control of the world through virtual-reality TV, a technology now in its infancy.

Dream and reality intertwine in "Wild Palms." Brilliant, literate, and disturbing, its innovative techniques make the usual TV sci-fi seem pallid indeed. But the frequent gruesome, sadistic images will be too much for many viewers, especially children.

The dreadful near-future of "Wild Palms" reflects Stone's obsession with the historical recurrence of atrocities and the rise of tyrants. But in so doing, it reflects a more general fear that history will again repeat itself, if things continue as they are now. Because it is set just 15 years hence, the world is still our familiar home. And the violence we see escalating around us now is only more refined in this near-future.

"Wild Palms" assumes that the worst impulses of humankind are ascendant, but it also implies that the same virtues it has always taken to make a hero are still necessary. Where the deep-space operas tend to reassure the viewer, "Wild Palms" rattles the whole presumption that technology will build a better world or establish social justice as a daily reality. Ironically, its message is emphatically anti-television.

Science fiction, even on TV, tends to make us look ahead, either to a world we don't want and must prevent (as in "Wild Palms"), or further, to a world in which community and individualism might comfortably nurture each other and justice and compassion govern the affairs of thoughtful beings.

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